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Saturday, 27 January, 2001, 01:42 GMT
Beating the 'British disease'
In this week's column, BBC education correspondent Mike Baker considers vocational qualifications in secondary schools.

We have been here before. Several times, in fact.

Will the British ever value vocational education as highly as the purely academic?

Or will the so-called "British disease" - the neglect of technical and vocational education - obstruct the latest initiative to put job-related courses into the mainstream of secondary schools?

This week, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, said Labour's agenda for a second term in government would focus on vocational education with youngsters able to take job-related courses at school from age 14.

Of course, this was mostly rhetoric: A statement of intent or maybe just hope. The substance of the announcement - the launch of new vocational GCSEs from 2002 - had actually been made last July.

But I believe David Blunkett was sincere in his desire to flag up an intention to lift vocational education out of its currently under-valued position.

More than plumbing

It was, perhaps, a shame that his "sound bite" for the day was that vocational skills needing boosting because, as he put it, we all know how hard it is to get a plumber at weekends.

To imply that vocational education is mainly about making it easier to find tradesmen does not seem the best way to promote parity of esteem for vocational education.

The sad reality is that the British have always looked down on vocational education while most of our European neighbours have created secondary education systems with well-regarded vocational routes.

Unlike us, they do not view vocational education as a ghetto for the least able or as an educational and career cul-de-sac.

Dutch model

In the Netherlands, for example, 12 year olds are directed towards different types of secondary school which specialise in either "pre-vocational", "general secondary" or "pre-university" education.

The first year or two is spent in a transition class which is broadly similar across the different types of school. This allows movement between the different schools if a child finds that, after all, they are better suited to a different sort of education.

The emphasis is on flexibility and on pupils and parents choosing the right sort of school for them rather than the school choosing the pupil.

At 15, students choose again between university preparation, vocationally-oriented courses leading to middle management positions or an apprenticeship system, comprising several different levels.

Britain began to move in this direction after the 1944 Education Act created the tri-partite grammar, technical and modern school system.

Failed experiment

But, as we know, there was never even remote parity of esteem between these types of schools and their academic, technical and general education pathways.

Few technical schools were built and they educated under 2% of students. The grammar schools retained the prestige of these ancient institutions while too many of the secondary moderns simply inherited the mantle of the old elementary schools.

Lack of money in post-war Britain and the deadening effect of the class system killed off this attempt to match the European school systems.

A further problem with school selection in Britain was the unreliability of the 11-plus exam, the lack of flexibility in the years after age 11, and the fact that schools chose pupils rather than the other way around.

So we now have a comprehensive school system in which all students follow a largely academic curriculum until 16.

Need for flexibility

But how well does this serve those youngsters - of all abilities - who have a technical or vocational bent? Does one size fit all?

A vocational route leading to recognised qualifications (and sadly the current jumble of acronyms that are GNVQs are not widely recognised) could release the potential in many young people. But only if the "British disease" can be avoided.

That means there needs to be flexibility in the system. Fourteen is still young to make career-narrowing choices.

It must be possible to switch easily between the vocational and academic routes and to take a mix of vocational and standard GCSEs. It is equally important that students with vocational GCSEs can, if they wish, go on to standard A-levels.

The vocational pathway needs to be a route not only to Modern Apprenticeships and skilled trades but also to university courses and technical and managerial careers. That both routes lead to the same type of qualification is a strength. But the vocational GCSE must not be seen as the route only for the less able.

Time for a change

If that happens, and vocational GCSEs are mostly achieved at grades D and E then the qualification is doomed to second-class status.

As the National Union of Teachers and others have pointed out, the rhetoric of the government - and the reality of league tables - suggest that GCSEs are only really valued at grade C or above.

It is equally important that the vocational GCSEs are not too narrow, as some of the current vocational qualifications appear to be. They must include broad knowledge and key transferable skills as well as more employment specific knowledge.

As John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association has put it, the new vocational system must "embrace physics and plumbing".

The complaint about the lack of plumbers may have helped attract media attention but the reality needs to be much broader and less class-conscious if it is to succeed.

Let me give the final word to the education commission which noted the contrast between the product of the British education system and the "general intelligence and technical knowledge of the masters and managers of industrial establishments on the Continent".

That was written in 1884. Perhaps, after more than a century, we can start to catch up.

Mike Baker welcomes your comments at: although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.
See also:

06 Jul 00 | UK Education
05 Oct 99 | UK Education
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